Lost & Found: Bucuresti
13-16 June 2008

Bucharest is the concrete wonderland capital of Romania, and definitely a place to visit if you like chewing game, hiring escorts, gambling and walking around an Old Town-cum-excavation site. It was once known as "Little Paris" but I assure you that it is nothing like Paris.

Visit:

The tourist street map did not indicate anything as useful as metro stations, tourist sites or a scale, but it did include some lurid advertisements for escorts and massage parlours.

Lipscani: The historic quarter was billed as the place to experience the authentic charming part of town as it was full of interesting shops, galleries and cafes. Well, unless you're an antiques dealer or am in the market for a flourescent white wedding dress, I'm not sure what the appeal is. Further, the cobblestone streets had all been unearthed so it felt like we were walking in a war zone - grim, grim, grim.

Happily, set in this waste land was the jewel-like Biserica Stavropoleos with its glorious frescos and restful courtyard, and when we passed it the mystical atmosphere was heightened by the chants of the monks inside.

Muzeul Taranului: A broad collection of Romanian peasant-related objects and life under communism, including intricately embroidered clothing, a wooden church, a completely constructed farmhouse, a massive windmill and portraits of Ceausescu. The descriptions were all extremely odd, with strange metaphorical references, communist-style references to 'victory over hardship', 'not rich but rich in life' and something about Romania being in the chair zone, while eastern countries are no longer in the chair zone (??). I have no idea how this won European Museum of the Year in 1996.

Ateneului Roman: Home of the Filharmonic George Enescu and apparently the most beautiful building in the city, although we were not able to go inside. The garden had the most bizarre topiary - a green furry pianist at a green furry grand piano.

Palatul Parlamentului

: Two tips for visitors; (1) if you want to visit Ceausescu's grand montrosity, now home to the Romanian parliament, you need to make an appointment by fax or by calling the number at 9am on the day; and (2) the looong boulevard with the grand fountains leading from Piata Unirii does not, misleadingly, lead to the front of the building, but the left hand side (if you're facing out) and the visitor's entrance is near that side. These precious bits of information were omitted from all the guides we read, so we ended up walking 3/4 of the way around the second largest building in the world in the dusty heat before realising that there was no chance of actually entering the building. ARGH!

Take a trip to Transylvania:

The Romanian countryside is famous for its castles and in particular its association with Vlad Tepes aka Dracula. So we decided to do a mammoth day trip into the heart of Transylvania.

Bucharest - Sinaia

: We had been warned about the state of Romanian trains but were pleasantly surprised by their overall efficiency and comfort (better than British Rail, how embarrassing). First stop was Sinaia, home of Peles, the summer palace of the first king of Romania. It was quite beautiful on the outside, imposingly set amongst the hardy forest. After a disorganised tourist bunfight to get into the building, our guide abruptly guided us through numerous dour overdecorated rooms filled with armour, gilded furniture and a procession of ugly portraits of the royal family ("Come. Yes. Appreciate this. Yes."). Our need to retreat from the rain meant a healthy lunch at the nearby cafe consisting of 4 cream cakes and a packet of chips, before taking some quick pictures of the other castle, Pelisor.

Sinaia - Bran

: We took a minibus to the grim Brasov train station, and met a lovely local on the way who attempted to speak to us in broken English and fed us pretzels. At Brasov we jumped on the #23 bus to the grim Autogara 2, where we waited for an hour in a grim waiting room to take the grim bus to Bran. We needn't have been concerned about missing our stop, as Bran was Tourist Trap Central. Despite the terrible tourist souvenior stalls hounding the main street (including a ridiculously haunted house and skeleton bar) Bran Castle was actually pretty cool. You could climb through secret passageways and imagine vampires just around the corner and bats screeching at night.

Brasov - Bucharest: Brasov old town was everything that Lipscani should have been, and wasn't. It was cute and clean, with brightly painted buildings set against the stunning backdrop of a steep forested mountainside. If we'd had more time it would have been nice to relax at one of the shaded cafes, but time pressures and lack of options meant a shameful visit to McDonalds.

Eat:

Don't expect to eat well in Romania and you won't be disappointed.

I-O Espresso:

The setting is pretty cool - a bombed out old building has been enveloped in a shiny mirrored structure, and the award-winning interior is decorated with black and white photos of the 1989 revolution. From the tables outside you face Piata Revolutiei, with its bizarre shard-and-profiterole monument to those killed in the revolution. The food is extremely ordinary, although if you like ice coffee they looked enormous.

Violeta's Vintage Kitchen:

A cute little cafe with a courtyard at the back which served half-decent cakes and fresh juice, and some mysteriously grey stuffed capsicums.

Casa Doina

: The best restaurant in Bucharest is a beautiful villa set in a verdant garden with a burbling fountain. The lovely surroundings were let down by the haphazard service and the best examples of Romanian food, including samale - sour cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and served with polenta. It was as good as it sounded. 150 Lei (£35)

Burebista Vanatoresc

: Everything in this restaurant is about meat - including the decor of stuffed animal heads and furry skins lying like splattered roadkill on the floors and the walls. Under the glassy glaze of a stuffed bear we tried the rather elastic wild boar meatballs, a very gamey ragout of bear and spicy pork ribs with a surprisingly tasty Hunter's rice of saffon, walnuts and raisins. Not bad for 115 Lei (£25), although we could have splurged on a bear paw for 650 Lei (£150). As expected, we felt heavy and lethargic afterwards, and at one stage I caught Tim out by exclaiming 'Did you just burp up....bear???'

Drink:

I hear the nightlife in Bucharest is wild and cheap. Unfortunately, Tim aka Snuffleupagus suffered the worst hayfever of his life thanks to the city's dust and pollution, which meant a hasty retreat to our airconditioned hotel after dinner. On our last day we did desperately try to find the interesting-sounding Laptaria lui Enache/La Motor or Cafeneaua Actorilor, to no avail. If anyone can follow the directions to enter a 'gloomy tower block at the back of the National Theatre', in a city full of gloomy tower blocks, please let me know.

Stay:

Hotel Moxa

: The BA flight magazine described this 4 star hotel as 'a credible attempt at a boutique hotel'. I think it's better than that. Our room, although awkwardly angled, was spacious and tastefully decorated, and included a comfortable bed with nice sheets, great showers, Hermes toiletries and a powerful air-conditioner (a must). The breakfast buffet had a good selection of cereals and fruits, as well as chopped vegetables, pickled herring and gherkins for those so inclined. If you're seeking more salicious entertainment, the gaudy 24 hour Casino Palace was close by, and there was a 24 hour porn channel (we weren't looking for it, I promise - it was in between Discovery Channel and the Romanian business news).

Biserica Stavropoleos: Str Stavropoleos 4

T: +40 21 313 4747

Ateneului Roman: Str Benjamin Franklin 1-3

T: +40 315 87 98

Muzeul Taranului: Sos Kiseleff 3

T: +40 653 53 60

Palatul Parlamentului: Calea 13 Septembrie 1

T: +40 414 14 26, +40 311 36 11

F: +40 312 09 02

Muzeul National Peles: Stra Pelesului 2, Sinaia

T: +40 244 310 918

Bran Castle: Stra G-ral Traian Mosioiu 498, Brasov

I-O Espresso: Stra Demetrie Dobrescu 5

T: +40 21 315 60 98

Violeta's Vintage Kitchen: Str Batistei 23

T: +40 21 310 06 81

Casa Doina: Sos Kiseleff 4,

T: +40 222 31 79

Burebista Vanatoresc: Str Batistei 14,

T: +40 211 89 29

Laptaria lui Enache/La Motor: B-dul Nicolae Balcescu 2

T: +40 21 315 85 08

Cafeneaua Actorilor: B-dul Nicolae Balcescu 2

T: +40 721 90 08 42

Hotel Moxa: Calea Victoriei 129 intersection with strada Mihail Moxa 4

T: +40 21 650 55 55

Casino Palace: Calea Victoriei 133

t: +40 231 02 20